Musical fusion is viewed too easily as a western fad, when in fact it has been a common condition for as long as practitioners of one cultural tradition have discovered useful things to adopt from another. For the Nile Project, a joyous collective whose dozen members represent 11 countries of Africa’s Nile basin, melding disparate practices and styles is not an end in itself, but a means by which to manifest a utopian appeal for comprehension and cooperation, extending past the humanities to embrace political, economic, and environmental concerns.
The performers, brought together in 2011 by the Egyptian ethnomusicologist Mina Girgis and the Ethiopian-American singer Meklit Hadero, are among the best and brightest young artists their homelands have to offer. Watching the Nile Project in action at Boston University’s Tsai Performance Center on Friday night in the grand finale of a weeklong residency, one marveled continually at this remarkable voice, that effusive instrumental display, and overall the happy ease with which these individuals formed a united front.
Their work was harder than they made it sound. That much became clear when Steven Sogo, from Burundi, painstakingly coaxed a tetchy umuduri — picture an archer’s bow with gourds affixed for resonance, struck with a slender stick — to sound an accord with Mohamed Abouzekry’s oud and Jorga Mesfin’s tenor saxophone.
Language barriers, too, had to be leapt, and not just to allow singers from Sudan, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Rwanda to harmonize sweetly. Much genial scuffling, one presumes, was required to form the mellifluous détente on show here.
The United States factors into this mash-up as well: partly through the ubiquity of its pop-culture exports, but more for the silky soul and hip-hop sass brought in by Hadero, who lives in San Francisco, and Alsarah, a Sudanese Brooklynite. And Girgis, addressing the audience mid-concert, revealed a local connection: He and Hadero were inspired to form the Nile Project after attending a concert by Boston’s Debo Band, some of whose members returned the gesture here.
Highlights from a consistently absorbing show included Sophie Nzayisenga’s potent voice and inanga (a Rwandan zither) on “Inganji”; the undulant satin ripple and gush of Dina El Wedidi’s singing in “Ya Ganoubeh”; Michael Bazibu’s tingling, shimmering adungu (a Ugandan harp); Abouzekry’s jaw-dropping oud virtuosity; and an exuberant, playfully competitive drumming feature for Bazibu, Egypt’s Hany Bedeir, and Kenya’s Kasiva Mutua.
Throughout, Mesfin’s subtle sax and Nader Elshaer’s lilting flutes were unfailingly complementary. Completing the group were Selamnesh Zemene, a regal Ethiopian singer, and Miles Jay, the Nile Project’s musical director, who joined in at times with his homemade contrabass sintir.
My sole reservation, not altogether trivial, was the auditorium setting. Suitably respectful it might have been, but performers who had encountered no difficulty crowd-sourcing a sing-along during Sogo’s “Bi Wele Wele” were hard pressed to entice even eager audience members to get up and dance. By evening’s end, the aisles were jumping at last. Next time, a nightclub, perhaps?